- Distance: 2.4 miles/3.9 km
- Grade: Moderate-strenuous
- Start from: Rectory Tea Rooms car park
- Parking: Church car park in front of the Rectory Tea Rooms
- Recommended footwear: walking boots
- OS Explorer: 126
- Ornate Morwenstow church and rectory
- Coastal views from Hawker's Hut - the National Trust's smallest building
- Pretty wildflowers on the coast path in spring and summer
- Panoramic views from Sharpnose Point
- Local food and drink at the historic Bush Inn and Rectory Farm Tea Rooms
- From the car park, cross over the road and make your way into the churchyard. Follow the path to the church.
The church at Morwenstow today is of the Norman period, but before this, it is believed that a Saxon church stood on the site. In a document dated 1296, the church was referred to as an 'old and well-known structure'. The church is dedicated to St Morwenna and St John the Baptist. Originally, it was just St Morwenna, but St John was added as a dedication around 1285 when the church was gifted to the hospital of St John the Baptist, in Bridgewater. Amongst the tombs and gravestones in the churchyard is the preserved figurehead from a ship - The Caledonia - which was wrecked nearby. More than 40 seamen are buried in the churchyard.
- Facing the church door, turn right and follow the path along the front of the church to a waymark.
Robert Stephen Hawker was the vicar at Morwenstow from 1834-1875. Before this, there hadn't been a vicar here for over a century. Hawker was regarded as a deeply compassionate person, giving Christian burials to shipwrecked seamen washed up on the shores of the parish, and was often the first to reach the cliffs when there was a shipwreck. He was an accomplished poet, publishing a number of works. Hawker was also something of an eccentric: he wore brightly-coloured clothes including a pink hat, talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and took his pet pig for walks. Other eccentricities attributed to him include: dressing as a mermaid ( with seaweed for hair) and excommunicating his cat for mousing on Sundays. His funeral was noteworthy because the mourners wore purple, instead of the traditional black.
- Just past the waymark, turn left along the wall to a stone stile. Cross the stile and follow the path, past the rectory, down into a wood, keeping right until you reach a footbridge.
Morwenstow Rectory is situated next to the churchyard, facing the fields of the appropriately named Vicarage Cliff. The rectory was built by Rev. Hawker and is, as you might expect, remarkable. The chimneys are modelled on the towers of the churches in his life: Morwenstow, Welcombe, Tamerton (where he had been curate) and Magdalen College, Oxford. The old kitchen chimney is a replica of Hawker's mother's tomb.
- Cross a footbridge and stile and follow the path, out of the woods, to a waymark in the corner of a field.
The Harvest Festival was invented in Morwenstow in 1843 by Rev. Hawker. He invited his parishioners to a Harvest service, as he wanted to give thanks to God for providing such plenty. The service took place on the 1 October, and bread made from the first cut of corn was taken at communion. It quickly caught on and spread throughout Cornwall and beyond. In the Port Isaac Harvest Festival celebration, fish, nets, oars and lobster pots took the place of the more conventional flowers and fruit.
- Turn left in the direction indicated by the waymark, following along the left hedge to a stile.
St Morwenna was an early 6th century saint from Ireland, and is said to have been one of the many children of the Celtic King Brychan. She settled in Morwenstow and her brother, St Nectan, lived nearby at Hartland. Ethelwolf, the Saxon King, appointed Morwenna to be the tutor for his daughters, for which service, Morwenna requested land to build a church. It is recorded that as she lay dying, St. Nectan came to see her, and she asked him to raise her up so that she might look once more on her native shore. She was buried at the church in Morwenstow.
Images of her, in stained glass, may be seen in the Morwenstow parish church and a painting on the North Wall shows a gaunt female clasping a scroll to her breast with her left hand; the right arm is raised in blessing over a kneeling monk.
- Cross a stile into the next field and follow the left hedge until you reach a waymark.
Brychan was a legendary Celtic king (originally born in Ireland) who ruled over Breconshire in South Wales. He had a large number of children, and most of these were reported to have evangelised Cornwall and North Devon, with many of the churches dedicated to them. Consequently, many of the place names in North Cornwall (St Teath, St Mabyn, St Endellion, St Minver, St Clether, Egloshale, Egloskerry, Advent, Morwenstow, Lelant etc) are from the names of his children. Brychan is buried on Lundy Island, known in the Celtic language as Ynys Brychan.
- At the waymark, turn left onto the coast path and follow it, down the valley, to a footbridge.
On a clear day, there is quite a good view of Lundy Island, to your right.
Lundy is largest island in the Bristol Channel, situated about one-third of the way to Wales. It is an outcrop of granite, which rises 400ft out of the sea and was England's first marine reserve.
The entire island is owned by the National Trust who lease it to the Landmark Trust and thus development has been tightly controlled: the island doesn't have a single tarmacked road, pavement or streetlight, and the electricity is turned off a night, resulting in incredible views of the night sky.
- Cross the footbridge and climb up the steps to Vicarage Cliff to reach a kissing gate.
- Go through the kissing gate and follow the right-hand edge of the fields along the coast above St Morwenna's Well to a sign for Hawkers Hut.
Morwenna's Holy Well, restored by Rev Hawker, survives in a now dangerously inaccessible position part-way down the cliff at Morwenstow. At one time, the National Trust cleared a rough path and provided ropes to assist descent half way down the 450 foot cliff to reach the well, but this has now been removed and has become overgrown with brambles, nettles and blackthorn. The route has since been used by at least one local family as a test of dedication for potential suitors.
- After having a look at the hut, continue along the coast to a kissing gate.
Hawker built a small hut from driftwood, on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Morwenstow. He spent many hours there "communing with St Morwenna" (i.e. smoking opium) and writing his poems and letters. One of these was Cornwall's anthem - Trelawny - which he published anonymously but was later credited with, by Charles Dickens. Hawker's Hut is now the smallest building owned by the National Trust.
- Go through the kissing gate and follow the right-hand edge of the field until you reach the fence on the far side.
The name Morwenstow has been Saxonified at some point in history and had "stow" added to indicate the presence of the church, perhaps replacing a "lan-" at the start. According to legend, the "morwen" part comes from St Morwenna. However, it's also worth noting that mor is the Cornish word for "sea" and gwenn means "white", so it's also possible that the name may have its origins in the rough seas around the rocky shores here.
- Bear right, down the footpath to the bottom of the gorge, to reach a waymark.
The headland to your right is Higher Sharpnose Point. This is where The Caledonia was wrecked, from which the figurehead was salvaged and placed as a memorial in the churchyard.
- At the waymark, turn left up the valley and follow the path to another waymark.
From the waymark at the bottom of the valley, you can take a short detour to Higher Sharpnose Point on the right. There are stunning views, so if the weather is good, it's recommended. To reach the point, turn right at the waymark and follow the path through the kissing gate to the top of the headland, then bear right out onto the point. Return to the waymark here, at the bottom of the valley, to resume the walk.
- Follow the path into the woods until you reach another waymark.
- At the waymark, bear left, uphill, until you reach a flight of steps.
- Climb the steps and continue on the path, alongside the river, up the valley until you reach a footbridge.
- Cross the bridge to a waymark, signposted to the left to Rectory Farm, and ahead to Crosstown. Follow the path, straight ahead, to Crosstown until you reach another waymark, next to a gate on the right.
The Saxons had a stronghold in northeastern Cornwall, which is reflected in many of the place names (-stow, -bury, -ton, -worthy, -cott, -ham, -ford etc). As you move further west, the Celtic place names (Tre-, Pen-, Lan-) become more common.
- At the waymark, turn left, in the direction indicated to Crosstown, and climb up the steps from the valley floor to a kissing gate.
Rev Hawker of Morwenstow documented a Witan-Stone (rock of wisdom) at Tidnacombe Cross "...grown over with moss and lichen, with a moveable slice of rock to conceal its mouth...a dry and secret crevice, about an arm's length deep". Its use was described to Hawker by a local smuggler:
"There, sir have I dropped a little bag of gold, many and many a time, when our people wanted to have the shore quiet and to keep the exciseman out of the way of trouble; and there he would go if so be he was a reasonable officer, and the byeword used to be, when t'was all right, one of us would go and meet him, and then say, 'Sir, your pocket is unbuttoned;' and he would smile and answer, 'Ay! ay! but never mind, my man, my money's safe enough;' and thereby we knew that he was a just man, and satisfied, and that the boats could take the roller in peace..."
The location of the stone is now a mystery, but it's possible it may be rediscovered one day. The chances of it still containing a bag of gold are fairly slim, though.
- Go through the kissing gate into the field and head to another kissing gate in the middle of the opposite hedge.
- Go through the gate and turn left into the beer garden of the Bush Inn. Continue through the beer garden until you reach the car park.
The Bush Inn at Morwenstow has a history dating back to 950AD, and is thought to have been a monk's rest on the pilgrimage from Wales to Spain, via the ports of North Devon and the Saints Way to Fowey. The current building dates from the 13th Century. A monastic cross is carved into the flagstone floor leading to the garden, and in the main bar is a Celtic piscina (shallow basin) made of serpentine.
- Bear left, across the car park, to the Rectory Tea Rooms sign.
Rectory Farm is situated next to the church and Rectory at Morwenstow - thus the name. Rectory Farm dates back to 1296 when it belonged to an order of Monks. The house contains oak beams salvaged from shipwrecks, floors of local slate, and a number of antique furnishings. The house was opened as a Tea Room in 1950 and since then has won a number of awards. A number of the ingredients are grown on-site in the kitchen garden or are from the farm, and many others are locally sourced.
- Bear left onto the lane, signposted to the Rectory Farm Tea Rooms, to complete the circular route.
The gateway into the churchyard, known as a lychgate (after the Saxon word lych meaning corpse), was constructed 1641. The small building - the lych house - which is now a store, was originally a mortuary where Hawker stored the bodies of drowned sailors prior to their burial.